Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings · Philosophy

Chronicles of an ongoing battle between solipsism and empiricism

On one hand there is a real physical world out there with objects that we can see, hear, touch, perceive. Living entities are the most intriguing of them all- we can talk to them, we can listen to them, we can play with them, we can fight with them, we can build relationships with them.

On the other hand there is the mental world- the world of thoughts, emotions, ideas and dreams. Mathematics, philosophy, music, painting etc. are major manifestations of this mental world. They often give us a glimpse of the existence of an abstract world beyond the physical world we live in – the abstract world nearing to have a physical existence of its own, defying the word “abstract”.

We live in the physical world, with mountains, rivers, trees, animals, houses, roads, cars, schools, colleges, hospitals etc. but often we encounter bridges to the abstract world like the 9 3/4-th platform in Harry Potter’s stories. These bridges range from critically acclaimed works of art like Claude Monet’s paintings, John Keats’s poetry, Amir Khusrao’s and Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics and Plato’s dialogues to myriads of events we experience in pop culture- Sachin Tendulkar’s cover drives on TV, Ultimate Warrior’s crazy promos before Wrestlemania, Rick and Morty’s trippy episodes to name a few. In this blog I shall try to explore several of these bridges between the physical and the mental worlds in a methodical fashion . At the core of all my posts recurs a constant struggle between two conflicting ideas- the idea of realism/ empiricism/ materialism, i.e., this world exists as it is independent of us and we are perceiving it through our sensory organs and modifying it through our motor organs, and the idea of idealism/solipsism, i.e. there is nothing real in this world outside our mind, all our friends, family, jobs don’t really exist, they are just impressions in our mind and this world is nothing but a simulation. My posts however don’t resolve the age old debate among philosophers regarding these two contradictory epistemological positions. I don’t think anybody ever will be able to do so. My posts simply put this debate in the right context, and throw more light on it.

One more thing, I have used the existing terminology in academic “philosophy” very freely here and in my other posts partly due to my my academic background in science as opposed to philosophy and partly due to my little lack of reverence for existing academic “philosophy” to explore philosophical themes. Academic “philosophy” explores philosophical themes only through words, crafted in a meticulous fashion. But in my humble opinion, the same themes can be captured only if the words are backed by actions in day to day life giving the appropriate context to those words, e.g. how we talk to our colleagues, how we interact with our friends, how invested we are in our romances, are as important as scholarly articles in understanding philosophy.  As Kabir says,

“Labzo se hum khel rahe hai, maana haat na aaye,

Paani paani rat te rat te pyaasa hi raha jaaye

Shola shola rat te rat te lab par aanch na aaye

Ek chingari lab par rakh lo, lab turant jal jaaye”

(We are playing with words, but we don’t understand the meaning. We keep chanting “water” but we stay thirsty. We keep chanting “fire” but we don’t feel anything on our lips, but the moment we put a flame on our lips,  our lips burn).

Growing up in a society full of friends, family, classes, jobs, degrees and honors it is very hard to perceive the possibility of the existence of a world beyond the physical. But life experiences can be such (getting immersed in music or painting, a feeling of extreme pain or cornucopia of joy in love, an emptiness through isolation from society in a new country or job) that the existence of the abstract world not only becomes conceivable but can even take over the existence of the physical world in one’s consciousness. There are thoughts going on in our head and we translate only a few of the thoughts into action. In mathematical language, it is a many to one mapping from the mental world to the physical world. In extraordinary circumstances like solitude, it is often hard to distinguish the world of thoughts from the world of action because there are too many thoughts and too few actions. The lack of onlookers to verify the reality perceived through our senses adds to it. Our consciousness is largely collective after all, a lot of the common sense we use for our day to day actions is imbibed by us from society through collective wisdom. With lack of people, the collective wisdom may start fading.

And with it, often comes lurking forward the fear of death, an event probably absolute in an otherwise conflicting world of ideas and arguments and events where probably every argument can be countered by another argument. Though I shall attempt to make my posts in this blog be as drenched in bright sunshine as possible, somewhat like Ruskin Bond’s writing, I cannot guarantee that death won’t expose its dark face here and there in the posts.

My posts will be broadly in the following categories:

i. Short stories

ii. Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/Rambling

iii. Golden Era of Bollywood (50s and 60s)

iv. Professional wrestling

v. Calcutta Corner

vi. Science

 

I shall add more categories with time, e.g. Impressionist art, Sufi poetry, sci-fi TV shows etc. with time.

Please check out the posts, thanks for visiting the site.

 

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Calcutta Corner · Philosophy · Poetry

Banalata Sen: Adaptation of selected poetry of one the most iconic Bengali poets- Jibanananda Das

Jibanananda Das is widely considered to be the greatest Bengali poet of the post Rabindranath Tagore era. Poetry books like “Rupasi Bangla”, “Dhushar Pandulipi” and “Banalata Sen”, which are essentially sincerest meditations on nature, feminine beauty, history, geography, life and death, have made him a common name in the Bengali household.

Here I have tried to adapt five of my favorite poems from his book “Banalata Sen” in English. I did not translate these poems word by word from Bengali to English since I believe that in such a manner it is very hard to reproduce the beautiful imagery of rural Bengal or that of far distant lands like Vidisha or Babylon that the poet created in the original poems, as his mind raced through both space and time in all its lonesomeness. Instead I have rewritten the same poems in my own way in English, trying to stay as close to the themes and imageries of the original poems as possible.

Please give them a read, irrespective of whether you are aware of the original Bengali poems or not. These five poems build on one another, so it’s probably a good idea to read all of them at one go, may be following the sequence in which they appear here.

 

 

Banalata Sen from Natore

 

A thousand years I’ve trodden paths on the face of the earth,

The seas of Ceylon and Malay I’ve voyaged through misery and mirth.

From Bimbisar and Ashoka’s fading city

Through endless streets of ancient darkness

Among even further away Vidarbha’s men,

Countless sojourns have made me listless

Until I found a moment of tranquility

In the soulful eyes of Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

 

Darkness of her hair reminded me of nights forlorn

In the city of Vidisha of long lost times. Sculptures that adorn

The temples of Shravasti inspired her countenance.

After a long lost voyage the way a sailor

Eyes a verdurous isle amidst the azure ocean,

Ohh I did see her with the same ardor

“Where wert thou all these days?”, asked she softly with a glance,

Tranquil as a bird’s nest, Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

 

End of the day like the dewdrop’s sound descends the eve’s veil,

Smell of the sun on the kite’s gorgeous wings grows pale.

As the last hues on earth fade into blackness eternal,

And sounds of sentience drown into slumber deep,

All birds return to the nest, all beasts to the den,

So do all brooks, all streams. All blossoms do sleep.

All that’s left behind is darkness abysmal

And reposed in front, pining for love, Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

 

A Windy Night

 

Last night was a windy night,

And a night of a thousand stars.

Scattered winds played with my mosquito net all night,

Swelling its bosom like the heart of a boisterous sea,

Making it long to escape the bed and fly into the stars.

Indeed, at times, half-asleep,

I felt like the mosquito net escaped from over my head

And set itself afloat in the turbulence of the winds, amidst all the azure-ness,

Like a white dove.

Such was the mystery of last night.

 

All the dead stars were resurrected last night.

I sighted the fading countenance of my favorite dead amidst them.

They were effulgent like the eyes of a lover kite on a dark tree top,

Eyes moistened by dew drops,

Resplendent like the leopard skin, the queen of far distant Babylon

Used to drape about her bosom.

Such was the splendor of last night.

 

All the beauties, I witnessed whom dying in Assyria, Egypt and Vidisha,

were resurrected last night.

I sighted them thronging the foggy horizon,

Holding tridents in their hands, determined

To trample death under their feet,

To celebrate the triumph of life,

To erect the menacing tower of love.

Terrified was I, last night’s turmoil tore me from within.

Within the tirelessly flapping wings of the azure sky

Faded time- like a tiny earthly insect.

Such was the tremor of last night.

 

Wind raced in through my windows last night,

Fierce as a herd of zebras running frantically

Through the lush green meadows,

Terror-stricken by the menacing roar of the lion.

My heart reverberated in joy

Intoxicated by the smell of the wilderness,

By the excitement of the darkness that roared within me,

Like a lustful tigress, ecstatic in her union with her lover.

I felt like my heart escaped this earth,

And set itself afloat like an inebriated balloon in the turbulence of the winds,

And sailed through the distant stars amidst all the azure-ness

Like a swift vulture.

Such was the mystery of last night.

 

 

A couple of decades later

 

A couple of decades later what if our paths again cross

Far beyond this city that gathers our generation’s moss;

Back in the pleasant countryside where our roots are entrenched deep,

In autumn by a granary with harvest the peasants did reap.

 

When kites, golden in the setting sun, journey homeward bound

And the pall of eve descends on meadows like the dewdrop’s sound,

When the moon moves soft behind the forest boughs in her regal grace

With leaves pitch black and branches specter thin silhouetted against her milky face,

 

When the lonesome owl, hiding from a tree top, at the village path does stare,

And strands of hay, from the ducks’ nests, from the crows’ nests, waft in the air,

When indolence prevails over the paddy fields stretched wide,

In this meadowy path I’ve found you again by my side.

 

After twenty years moving about the city swept by life’s tide,

In this pastoral land I’ve found you again by my side.

 

 

Naked, lonely hand

 

Once more darkness intensifies in the spring sky.

Darkness,

The mysterious sister of light.

Like a lady who always loved me dearly,

But whose countenance I’ve never seen.

 

The shape of a fading palace in a long lost city looms in my mind.

By the side of the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea,

There was once a city, a palace,

Where there were

Persian carpets,

Kashmir shawls,

Cockatoos and pigeons,

Shadowy boon of the mahoganies,

Orange sun,

And you, my lady,

You.

I haven’t searched for the beauty of your countenance

For centuries,

For centuries.

 

The spring sky brings back those memories, those stories,

From far distant lands, from long lost cities.

Fading manuscripts made out of leopard skin,

Window panes of rainbow colors,

Orange sun playing on

Persian carpets,

Curtains with colors of the peacocks’ feathers,

Glass full of wine,

Crimson red,

Your naked, lonely hand.

 

Your naked lonely hand.

 

 

Walking Along

 

I’ve taken solitary walks along endless streets of the city,

For years and years,

With a vague remembrance of some fading message.

 

Trams and buses move about the city, punctually, all through the day,

And then desert its streets to fade into their own world-

Their own world of sleep.

I’ve seen them sleeping in sheds and depots all night.

I’ve seen gaslights lighting the streets of the city tirelessly through the night,

Aware of its duties.

Bricks, doors, windows, signboards,

Drowned in slumber

Under the night sky.

I’ve absorbed their peace, their bliss, through my lonesome walks.

 

It’s late in the night,

Stars whisper around the peak of the Monument.

Have I ever witnessed something more seamlessly beautiful than this-

A starry lonesome Calcutta?

Eyes descend upon the grass,

Dew drops on the blades,

Strands of hay waft in the air.

 

Why did I take lonely walks along endless streets of Babylon

Through the darkness of the nights?

I still don’t know, even after a thousand years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philosophy · Short stories

A quartet of words to define truth

It is a truth universally acknowledged that no such absolute truth exists. Every argument has a counter argument. Every rule has an exception. No absolute reality exists which goes beyond thoughts, emotions, and actions, or probably such reality cannot be perceived by us, humans. At least, that was the impression Ary had obtained after spending long hours devouring books in libraries and bookstores and having intense conversations with friends in Berkeley for a period of six years. Born and brought up in the metropolis of Calcutta, Ary was currently on the brink of finishing his doctoral research in experimental physics at Berkeley.

One day, as he got out of his favorite bookstore “Half Price Books” in downtown Berkeley, the different sections and bookshelves of which constituted the most accurate record of how his interests had evolved over the years, he ran into his fellow graduate student and best friend, Polo, who was also from India. For two people living in a university town, that was actually quite common an occurrence.

“Wanna go to the city?”, Polo asked cheerfully.

It was a nice summer afternoon with a clear blue sky, the kind of which probably only that part of the world could boast about. Growing up in a polluted city with a blazing sun characteristic of the tropics, Ary couldn’t imagine the sky could be so blue until he got to the Bay Area. It almost looked like the inside of a giant dome that had been smeared with a blue paint.

There wasn’t much work to be done at the laboratory that day and Ary found no reason to refuse the warm invitation. The two friends started walking towards the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in downtown to board the train that would take them to San Francisco. The outside of the BART station had the usual “homeless” crowd. Some of them were seeking money from the passerby. Some slept blissfully under torn blankets that hadn’t been washed in ages accompanied by their faithful dogs, which looked equally battered and unclean. An old man, wearing a black coat and a grey cap, sat on a stool and blew hard into his saxophone to elicit an intricate jazz solo. Another “homeless” guy, sitting right next to the escalator, made completely incoherent sounds.

“Hey, you are gonna keep doing all this philosophy and psychedelics and spirits and stuff, and then one day you will be on the street saying- byabyabyabyabya…..”, Ary mocked Polo, who according to Ary had of late gone too far on the journey into the abstract world. Ary took part in that roller coaster ride too but tried to control himself when it started getting scary. But Polo seemed to know no control.

“If all the mysteries of nature are clear to him inside his head, then how does it matter what he is saying?”, Polo responded.

As they boarded the train, Ary pondered upon how much he would miss these conversations with her once he left Berkeley in a few months for postdoctoral research in New York City.

Calcutta Corner

Kolkata Literary Meet 2018

Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet (KLM) is one of the more recent additions to the wide repertoire of cultural events that the city of Calcutta can boast of. Though now there are more than fifty literary festivals in different parts of the country in a single calendar year, Kolkata Literary Meet still retains its uniqueness, thanks to the star studded list of speakers it has every year, the aura of the Victoria Memorial which hosts the fest and the rich literary heritage of the city which probably hasn’t faded over the years. The poet Jeet Thayil jokingly mentioned during one of the talk sessions of the fest that this year’s KLM kicked off smoothly with a poetry session- an idea that would invite some retaliation in some other parts of the country.

The first KLM I attended was in January, 2016, when I was in the city for a month’s break from graduate school in US. My mind was in quite a turbulent state that time owing to some emotionally draining events that happened around me then, and I was desperately looking for new ideas and philosophies. I attended several one hour talk sessions of KLM 2016 and each of them provided me with food for thought for the next several months. I ended up buying the books, written by the speakers in all those sessions, in the Kolkata Book Fair that followed the literary meet, took them back to US with me, read them with great passion for months and had long and intense conversations about the ideas in those books with my friends in grad school.

I wasn’t in Calcutta during KLM 2017, but this year (2018) I made it a point to be in the city during KLM. After attending Durga Puja first time in seven years, I feel like my bond with the city has been re-established and hence no way would I have missed KLM 2018. Here are my thoughts on the sessions I attended and found intriguing and some pictures I took at the sessions (This shouldn’t be treated as a comprehensive summary or review of KLM 2018, I attended only a few sessions and my thoughts here are more on how the ideas conveyed in those sessions  are connected to the central theme of my blog than on the ideas themselves):

Sesher Kobita Ekhono Keno Prashangik- Soumitro Chatterjee 

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It was surreal for most people in the audience including myself to not only see the iconic Bengali actor on stage, a few yards in front of them, but also have the opportunity to ask him questions. Even if this session had no topic whatsoever and the speaker simply talked of how he had spent his day, I would have been glued to my seat hearing the person, who played the roles of Apu, Feluda, Amal (Charulata), etc. on screen to perfection and formed a large part of my childhood, talk. The session however had a specific topic- the relevance of Sesher Kobita ,an iconic Bengali novel written by Rabindranath Tagore, in today’s times, and closed with Soumitro Chatterji reciting the last part of the novel, which is essentially a couple of poems where the two lovers bid each other goodbye, probably symbolic of the state of mind Tagore himself was in when he wrote the novel in the twilight of his career. The octogenarian actor elegantly reciting those poems with the darkness of the night slowly descending upon the magnificent Victoria Memorial in the background provided a mesmerizing moment that the people in the audience would probably remember for years to come.

Abastob, Agyato, Aparichito (Unreal, Unknown and Unfamiliar) – Md. Zafar Iqbal, Sirshendu Mukherjee and Binod Ghoshal 

The topic of the session was “Unreal, Unknown and Unfamiliar” in literature and the speaker panel most aptly included the iconic Bengali writer Sirshendu Mukherjee, whose novels for children were one of the best parts of my childhood and featured a lot of ghosts in a humorous way, and Bangaldeshi author and researcher in physics and computer science, Md. Zafar Iqbal. It wasn’t unexpected that a session on the relevance of ghosts and mystic elements in Bengali adult fiction would end up dwelling upon the possibility of existence of an abstract world or metaphysical realm beyond the physical world, which has been the major theme of my blog.

The most educated and well thought argument I have encountered so far in favor of the existence of the metaphysical realm is that there is a always subjective element to our consciousness. No two individuals experience reality the same way. Hence one should always be flexible about their conception of reality, leaving enough room for events that are labeled supernatural now but can be considered “real” in future. Author Sirshendu Mukherjee seemed to adhere to this view when he said that he neither really believed or disbelieved in ghosts. At least that was my take home message from what he said.

The most educated and well thought out counter argument to the above argument I have heard is that there is no empirical evidence to conclusively support the existence of the metaphysical realm. It is quite possible that the neurons in our brain fire in particular sequences to give us that “illusion”. Author Md. Iqbal probably seemed to adhere to that view when he said that in his opinion ghosts don’t exist but ghost stories do and being a physicist by training, he didn’t give too much importance to meta-physics.

Benche Thakar Lekha – Anupam Roy 

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The focus of the session with Anupam Roy, one of the most popular singer- song writers of Bengal in the current times, was on the poems, novels and song lyrics that he wrote so far as opposed to his music which had given him more fame and money. Anupam seemed to be particularly proud of his maiden novel “Somoyer Baire”, from which he read an excerpt that dwelt upon three smart young guys- an aspiring mathematician, an aspiring entrepreneur and a guy without aspirations, who followed different trajectories in their careers and lives, that crisscrossed a few times when they were munching peanuts sitting below the Shahid Minar in Maidan and reflecting upon their lives. It sounded extremely familiar and interesting to me. “Somoyer Baire” probably got into my “To Buy” list for the upcoming Kolkata Book Fair.

Performance of “Meghnad Badh Kabya” by Gautam Haldar and Naye Natua

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It will probably take me another few years of serious study of classical poetry, shadhu bhasha and theatrics to make a single comment about this epic poem and the performance. For now I just feel blessed that I witnessed this performance.

 

Philosophy · Science

There’s more to it than meets the eye

For a long time, it wasn’t clear to me why a stick inside water appears bent- a phenomenon we all witness in our day to day lives and about which we have read in high school Physics textbooks.

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A high school Physics textbook uses a schematic as below (Figure 1) and offers the following explanation: Light (ambient) reflected by the stick get bent when it traverses from water to air due to refraction. Our eyes can’t follow the bent path of rays, backtrace those rays as shown in the schematic (dotted lines) and hence we see the stick at a different position from where it really is.

schematic_1Figure 1- Schematic used in high school physics textbooks to explain why a stick inside water appears bent. Light from point A on the stick bends at the surface of water, our eye can’t follow the bent path and so we see image of A at A’. Using the picture of an eye and back-tracing the light rays to a point basically involve one layer of abstraction, which we don’t use in the subsequent ray diagrams.

In high school, I took this explanation for granted, reproduced it on answer scripts of examinations and even solved numerical problems related to it. But I never really understood this phenomenon until I got into graduate school, where my lack of understanding of this phenomenon eventually made me conclude that I do not understand how science works in general. Then after a phase of “soul searching” and of course reading up on several things, a much more satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon dawned on me, which I shall describe here in details.

The fact that this is a blog post gives me the liberty to not only write about a field of science in which I am not an expert but also state something which may already have been published before or has been proven wrong. I simply may not be aware of it despite talking to several friends, pursuing research in the sciences, and spending a lot of time on the internet browsing on the topic. I don’t have this luxury while writing research articles in peer reviewed journals for my professional career.

Another reason to write this essay is that my explanation starts from physics, that governs all phenomena in the physical world, but eventually delves into the mental world and becomes a neuroscience problem, true to the theme of my blog. In my opinion, the neuroscience aspect is key to understanding the phenomenon, but has largely been ignored in high school textbooks, which led to a gap in my mind between what I read in science textbooks and what I witnessed in the real world.

So let’s first get back to the explanation provided in high school physics text books. Light from the stick travels in a straight line inside water, but when it crosses the water surface it bends since air has a refractive index different from water. Then light again travels in straight line in air to reach our eye. The fact that light travels in straight line in a medium and that it bends at the intersection of two media are consistent with the laws of physics. But these facts alone don’t solve the puzzle. The last part of the explanation is that our eyes cannot follow the bent path and backtrace the incoming rays in a straight line path to form an image of the stick at some other position. But there are no details on why this is so in high school textbooks.  Similar issue arises with explanation of how magnifying glass works, why we see our reflection on the mirror or occurrence of mirages- basically any case where a “virtual image” is formed.

First let’s take the case of a magnifying glass and analyze it in more details. In order to solve the last part of the puzzle, we have considered the eye as a combination of a convex lens in front and a screen (retina) behind it in the ray diagram below (Figure 2). High school textbooks instead show the picture of an eye and backtrace the rays, which is basically a layer of abstraction which was the root cause of my confusion.

RayDiagram1_1

Figure 2- To our retina, there is no difference between an object at position x with lens at position z, and a larger object at position y with no lens. But our brain always thinks that it is the second case and that is what we “see”.

Actually, if an object AB is placed within the focal length of the convex lens (magnifying glass)  rays from object AB go through the lens, diverge and then hit the lens of our eye only to converge again at the retina. There is absolutely no difference in the spatial intensity pattern formed on the retina between the case in figure 2 (object AB at position x and lens at position z leading to formation of virtual image ab at position y) and a simpler case of a larger object ab at position y with no lens at position z. However, our brain only considers the second case and hence we “see” a magnified object at position y. No matter how much we train our brain through physics textbooks, we can never instead “see” a much smaller object at position x even though we know that is the case physically. Thus there is a subtle difference between the intensity pattern/ image formed at the retina of the eye and what we “see”. This subtle difference is probably created by some extremely complicated signal processing in the brain. Instead of looking at the magnifying glass with our eye if we took a snapshot with our camera then also we will end up “see”-ing the same thing. This is because the lens of the camera acts like the lens of our eye leading to the same intensity pattern on the film/CMOS sensor as the retina. Then we interpret that intensity pattern with our brains the same way we do in the case of looking at the magnifying glass with our eyes.

Next let’s discuss why we see the reflection of an object on the mirror the way we see it. In Figure 3 below, we consider two cases: Case I (an object AB at position x and a mirror at position z) and Case II (an object AB at position x, another identical object CD at position y and no mirror)

RayDiagram2_1

Figure 3- To our retina, there is no difference between case I and case II, but our brain thinks that it can be only be case II. It is to be noted that A’B’ and C’D’/ a’b’ are formed on the same region of the screen. They have just been drawn slightly away from each other for the sake of clarity here. 

Again, in either case, the intensity distribution on the retina is the same- a focussed image of object AB and a slightly defocussed image of object CD, or ab (light rays from object AB get reflected off the mirror and converge near the retina). However just like in the example of magnifying glass, our brain only considers case II and hence we “see” an object at position x and another identical object at position y. No matter how much we try we cannot “see” an object at x and a mirror at z which is reflecting off the light from the object at x.

At this point, I guess it is obvious what happens in the case of a stick immersed in water. Rays of light (ambient) reflected by the stick cross the surface, bend, hit our eyes and converge to form an image on our retina which is identical to an image of a bent stick in the air. Just like the previous cases, we end up “see”-ing a bent stick in air (yes we still see the water in all practical cases but that is for other reasons like presence of the vessel, water droplets, water reflecting off ambient light etc.) as opposed to a straight stick in water with light bending off as it comes towards our eyes.

The subtle point I am trying to make here through all the examples above is that light can travel through a bent path on its way from the object to our eyes if it passes from one medium to another with different refractive index. The image formed on our retina will be identical to an object being displaced from its actual position and light traveling from it to our eyes through vacuum/ air following a straight line path. However our brain can only conceive of light traveling straight through vacuum/ air and hence we “see” the object at a position different from where it actually is. This particular behavior of the brain may arise out of evolution because we and our ancestors have grown up in a planet with air of a nearly constant refractive index and our visual perception is hence calibrated to that. Essentially, the laptop/ computer on which the reader is reading this article, the table on which it is placed, the window in your room, etc. are present where they “see” it to be present simply because light is traveling through a medium of fixed refractive index on its way from the object to their eyes. If the refractive index of the medium changed along the trajectory of light, they will see the objects at different spots from where they actually are. If we could do an experiment where we could have brought aliens from a planet where the refractive index of the medium varies much more as a function of height from the surface of the planet than it does in the case of our earth and ask them where they locate different objects on earth, then my hypothesis could have been tested. My guess would be that they would locate all objects on earth wrongly because their brains are calibrated to how light travels in their planet, which is not usually in a straight line unlike our planet.

At this point, the really imaginative readers may be wondering if what we see around us indeed exist or not. Probably they have asked this question to themselves before. My humble opinion in this regard is that there is no absolute reality, or at least we can’t perceive it. We can only be more convinced of the existence of something we see through other senses like smell, touch, etc. but can never be convinced of the absolute existence of something. A subjective aspect of consciousness always accompanies our perception of reality, which is essentially a calibration of the current signal we are receiving from the external physical world to some previously received signal, which we may have received in our own lifetime or inherited from our predecessors through evolution, as in the case of all the optical phenomena discussed in this essay.

 

 

Philosophy · Science · Short stories

The mind-matter dilemma

“Hey, are you gonna be here longer? Then I won’t lock the door now.”

Jack asked Ary as he was about to leave the laboratory for the day. Ary didn’t know why he asked the same question to Ary every evening. Though he certainly wasn’t the first person to get into the lab everyday, he almost always was the last person to leave. He worked till late hours of the night while most others would hang out with their friends and families, attend parties or simply go to bed early to have an early start for the next day.

Ary’s eyes were on the computer screen, as the tip of the microscope scanned the surface of the last thin film he grew.

“Hey Ary, will you lock the door?”, Jack asked again not getting an answer from Ary.

Of course I would. I am a poor Indian grad student living in a foreign land. I have no life. I have no girlfriend- Ary told himself.

But then to his own surprise, he said, “No, I think I am done for the day. I shall leave with you. Lock the door”.

Ary packed his backpack, left the computer to direct by itself  the motion of the tip of the microscope over his dearest thin film sample, and got out of the lab, located in the basement of Hearst Memorial Hall, the oldest building on the University of California Berkeley campus. Outside it was dark already. It was the end of November. Days had already become very short in this part of the globe.

Ary hated this part of the year the most. It had been more than two years since he had moved to California from Calcutta for his PhD. He would go home every winter during the Christmas break and come back quite refreshed to resume research. So during this time of the year, with days too short and nights too long for a guy from lower latitudes like Ary and Christmas still a month away, he would feel exhausted and depressed after swimming with the sharks in a highly aggressive and competitive research environment of one of the top graduate schools in US for an entire year, and longed for the peace and warmth of his sweet home in Calcutta.

Ary paced across the campus briskly in the dark and reached the University Avenue, which started from the west end of the campus, pierced through the heart of the city of Berkeley which was rather somewhat between a college town and a full blown city and ended at the Berkeley Marina, which overlooked the bay that connected with the Pacific Ocean. Ary wondered where to go for dinner. He didn’t want to cook the same marinara pasta at home again. He called up Diggy, a fellow grad student from India and one of his closest friends in Berkeley, to check his availability for dinner. Diggy, as expected, didn’t pick up the phone. Ary followed the University Avenue to the downtown area, passed the dingy McDonalds restaurant frequented by homeless people and walked into Bobby G’s Pizzeria- a sports bar with some good pizza.

Ary sat at the bar and waited for his pizza. The “football” game on TV didn’t register in his head at all. He never really understood the rules nor he knew any of the teams or the players. He kept thinking about the results of his experiments or lack thereof, his withering interest in the topic of his research and the apparent lack of direction in his research work- an activity which occupied most of his time for the last two years.

Just when his pepperoni pizza arrived, another fellow grad student, Steve Lambson, hopped in and sat next to him. Ary had talked to Steve a few times in the graduate social hour, but he didn’t really know much about him other than that his name was Steve Lambson, he was a second year PhD student in Civil Engineering and he was from Minnesota.

“You eat meat?”, asked Steve, “I thought Indians don’t”.

Ohh, another conversation aimed at dispelling misconceptions about Indians’ food habits, which won’t serve its purpose! – Ary told himself.

Ary didn’t feel like talking. For a while he had observed a pattern about himself. His inclination to interact with people outside the Indian graduate student community used to be very high when he wasn’t occupied with research. But after he spent a few days immersed in research, he only wanted to talk to his fellow Indian grad students. The current conversation with Steve would possibly continue along the lines of Indian culture, which Ary was tired talking about after spending two years in Berkeley. The conversation could also take an alternate trajectory where Ary would talk about his own research and Steve would talk about his, with neither person understanding anything about the other person’s research. Neither trajectory appeared promising to Ary, but he was too polite in this foreign land to not continue the conversation.

Though the conversation took the well-trodden second trajectory, Ary was pleasantly surprised to identify that he was actually able to follow Steve’s research. In fact, he started liking it. To make it more intriguing, Steve also mentioned that there was an opening for a new PhD student in his project. Steve was deploying wireless sensors in the Sierra Nevada basin to detect the occurrence of landslides. Though the technical aspect of the project sounded interesting, what really captured Ary’s imagination was the location of the project- instead of spending all his time working on thin films in a basement of a Berkeley building he would do laboratory work out there in nature, amidst the majestic Sierras. Ary had driven to Yosemite Valley that summer with some fellow Indian grad students and was mesmerized by the Sierras. Though he had visited several hill stations in the Himalayas with his parents back in childhood, he felt that the beauty of the Sierras wasn’t comparable to any other mountain he had seen before. He wasn’t sure why he felt so. He meticulously photographed the looming granite structures, the serene lakes, the tall redwoods and the beautiful chapels with his newly bought DSLR and wanted to go there again soon to pursue his passion in photography further. Now he was probably provided with the perfect opportunity to combine his work and his passion.

For a long time he knew that he loved Physics. That’s why he was working all day in a laboratory trying to find a phase boundary in a ferroelectric thin film, which nobody had observed before. But of late he loved photography and nature and nature photography so much more. This was his chance to stop being an Indian nerd and become cool like an American. Ary walked home that night, confused but excited. However when he jumped into the twin sized bed of his small studio apartment in downtown Berkeley, for which he paid a rent half his monthly stipend, he was too tired from the day’s work and inebriated from the beer at Bobby G’s to think further and slept immediately…

Professional Wrestling · Short stories

The big red monster

The whole arena turned red, a creepy music hit, a big monster showed up wearing a mask, he waved his hand and there was fire all about the ring, the twenty thousand people in the audience screamed in excitement and awe…..

“Kane! Kane! It’s his brother Kane!”, Ary kept screaming, lying on his bed and throwing punches in the air. His mom hastily walked into his bedroom and pushed him out of bed, “Get up! It’s past 8 AM, get ready for school, how much more are you gonna sleep, and stop watching that stuff”, his mother said, and rushed back again to the kitchen. She had to stir the fish curry one last time while all the water would evaporate leaving behind the fish, the potatoes and the spices delightfully blended together. Ary’s dad, who was packing his briefcase in the living room, would eat the fish curry with rice before going to office. “Have you seen your own physique, Ary? How can a guy like you be interested in such hooligan stuff!”, his dad yelled at Ary, as Ary got out of his bedroom and walked towards the sink in front of the bathroom. Unrest and tension were always at its peak during this time of the day in their moderately sized third floor apartment in the southern suburbs of Calcutta, with an impatient and worldly adult running around the house looking frantically for the shaving brush, the comb, the handkerchief and the green tube of “Borolin” cream on his way to office, and a lazy and unworldly kid being rushed by his mom at every step on his way to school.

As Ary stood at the sink holding the toothbrush motionless inside his mouth and staring at the mirror in his front, he tried to remember the face he saw in his dream last night that made him scream- a big masked face, long hair, similar to the monster who broke into the steel cage and “tombstoned” the Undertaker last night on TV. Just that the color of the mask wasn’t red in the dream. It was rather kind of dark grey. He never dreamt in colors, he had noticed. The world of his dreams was like the world of his big fat pet cat Obelix even when she was awake- black and white. Cats don’t have cones in their eyes, his school teacher had mentioned a few days back. He had been looking at Obelix with more amazement since he picked up that information. “Mom, mom, she’s seeing everything in black and white!”, he would scream every time Obelix showed up in the living room and greeted everyone with her customary “meaow”.

“Again you are simply standing out there holding the toothbrush! Why can’t you just do things in time.”

Ary never understood what “doing things” exactly meant. He was good at studies but that was simply because he loved spending time with books and learning new things and hardly forgot what he learned. But all these other things- brushing teeth, taking shower, eating food- he hardly ever found any purpose in them. Every now and then he would get lost in his own world, or rather one of the multiple worlds he had created inside his head over the years.  The world of professional wrestling was one of the recent ones. His father had just subscribed for cable television in their house, one of the first ones to do so in their middle-class neighborhood, much against the wish of his mom who thought it would adversely affect Ary’s studies. Ever since then, Ary had gotten addicted to watching World Wrestling Federation (WWF) shows once back from school. Yesterday was a Sunday and fighting against fierce opposition from his dad he managed to watch the match between Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker inside a fifteen feet high steel cage.

Ary walked into the bathroom and locked the door from inside for a shower. Finally his imagination could flow seamlessly, unobstructed by instructions from rest of the world. Ary imagined a square ring with tight ropes surrounded by a raucous American crowd about whom he knew very little barring their love for wrestling. Shawn Michaels entered the arena to a massive cheer and there he was next to Shawn Michaels as his best friend. He didn’t call himself Triple H. He called himself Penta X. He wasn’t really very sure how Penta X looked. He knew that Penta X wasn’t a giant like Undertaker or Kane. He was of medium height and slim and extremely agile, kinda like Shawn Michaels, but his face resembled Ary’s. He came out to a song that sounded like “Run miles, run miles….”.Together Shawn and he were ready to take on anyone- a dead man from Death Valley, California, a deranged maniac from some random broiler room, a giant sumo wrestler from Japan- just name it!! But who was that big red monster? What was there behind that scary mask? Could he actually walk through fire? Would they be able to take him down?

Just as Penta X was about to take on the red monster, mom screamed, “Ary!! You are in the bathroom for the last ten minutes and I haven’t heard a single splash!! What are you doing out there? It’s 9:30 AM. Everyday, it’s the same story”, a combination of anger and helplessness in the tone. Ary stopped the match before the bell rang, decided to resume it once back from school and grabbed the mug to fill it up with water from the bucket and begin the “shower”…….

Calcutta Corner

Durga Puja, 2017

I don’t think any festival is celebrated in any part of the world the way Durga Puja is celebrated in Bengal, particularly Calcutta. The celebration of the arrival of Goddess Durga from her abode in Mount Kailash to our homes in Bengal is not merely restricted to a certain religion or group in the city. Though chanting of  stotras in reverence of the goddess, fasting and worship of the goddess’s idol form an integral aspect of the puja, they are far from being the only aspects of it. Rather Durga Puja encompasses all aspects of culture- art, literature, music, movies, etc. with preparations for pandal decorations beginning in the city almost a year ahead of the puja, craftsmen coming from remote parts of Bengal to the capital to display their trade and earn a living, literature being published at its finest in esteemed Bengali magazines like Desh and Anandamela a few months prior to the puja, new “commercial” and “art” movies being released at the theaters a few weeks before the puja and the city dressing up with meticulously crafted pandals, housing both traditional and modern sculptures of the divine, at almost every corner for the four days of the actual festival.

Though Durga Puja in Calcutta had been an integral part of my childhood and college days I haven’t been in the city or the country during the puja for the last seven years, so Durga Puja 2017 was really special to me. Here are a few photographs and short reviews of some pandals I visited, some new novels and stories I read in Desh and Anandamela and some new Bengali movies I watched at the theaters during this year’s puja.

Pandals/ Street Art: 

There is street art at almost every corner of the city during the four days of the puja, in the form of puja pandals. I visited some pandals both in North and South Calcutta this time, the decorations and Durga idols of which ranged from traditional to modern (“theme pujas”). Here are some photographs I took of the pandals I liked the most with brief descriptions of each.

Best idol:

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The iconic Durga idol of Bagbazaar Sarbojonin on the left- every year it’s a newly made idol but it is exactly the same as last year’s. Some things in life don’t change!!
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Durga idol of Chetla Agrani club sculpted in mahogany wood
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Mesmerizing idol of the divine in all her tranquility at Shibmandir Sarbojonin

Best exterior decoration: 

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Thailand’s White Temple, mimicked at Deshpriya Park, dazzling in white light.
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Colorfully decked bird’s nest at Jodhpur Park.

Best interior decorations:

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A musical performance at Kasi Bose Lane
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Nalini Sarkar Street (Real houses on both sides of a typical narrow lane of North Calcutta become a part of the puja pandal)
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Colorful interiors at Selimpur Pally
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A regal atmosphere at Mudiali Club. The background music beautifully added to the interior decorations.

Best lighting: 

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Ekdalia Evergreen’s street lighting as gorgeous as ever.

Literature:

I read this year’s Pujabarshiki (Puja edition) Anandamela (most popular magazine for new Bengali teenage fiction) almost in its entirety and also some of the novels from this year’s Sarodiya (Puja edition) Desh (most popular magazine for new Bengali fiction) and Anandabazaar Patrika . These are the novels/ short stories I really liked.

Nihsabda Mrityu (Silent Death) by Sukanta Gangyopadhyay (teenage detective novel):

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A very popular opinion currently in Calcutta is that Bengali literature, particularly children/ teen’s literature, is in decay. It is not hard to buy the prevalent opinion given the demise of Satyajit Ray (creator of Feluda) and Sunil Ganguly (creator of Kakababu) and aging of Sirshendu Ganguly (creator of the “Odbhuture”  series) and Samaresh Majumdar (creator of Arjun). However one detective/ adventure series that stands out in today’s teenage literature is Sukanta Ganguly’s “Dipkaku” series. It probably started about a decade back in Pujabarshiki Anandamela and I had always liked it. This year’s Dipkaku novel was no exception. The plot was quite intriguing, innovative and unpredictable. I know my opinion would raise many eyebrows but I would still go on to state that Dipkaku is the best sleuth that Bengali fiction has produced after Byomkesh and Feluda. Kakababu and Arjun, despite their popularity, were never really detectives. Their stories were mostly adventures with very few elements of puzzle solving characteristic of a typical detective story. Things just happened in those stories- the villain revealed himself to Kakababu and Arjun at some point, they didn’t really follow clues to reach the villain.  On the other hand, Sukanta Ganguly’s Dipkaku series is a textbook example of detective fiction, with the detective Dipkaku following each and every clue at the crime scene to get to the villain. It is probably time to lift Dipkaku from the not so read pages of Anandamela to the silver screen for next year’s Puja season.

 Tuatara by Debashish Bandyopadhyay (teenage adventure novel)

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My first impression of this novel is that it is extremely dense. That’s probably a good thing particularly because the setting of the novel is also a very dense forest in the Garo Hills of north-east India. Not only is this short novel full of facts about the geography and folklore of Garo hills which were unknown to me before but also it is jam packed with action. I often turned back the pages to keep track of all that was going on.

Passages to the abstract world, of which I talked about in the introduction post of my blog, are present here in abundance disguised as tales in Garo folk lore. However keeping in mind the young audience or probably out of his own lack of interest about the abstract realm, the author did not let the readers indulge themselves in those mind altering trajectories. The monologue and actions of the main villain deep inside the cave towards the ending of the novel were still too violent and trippy for the teenage readers but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

One issue I had with the novel was that the story of the bad guy killing his twin brother and taking his place had been repeated too many times in Bengali teenage fiction, making the plot quite predictable. Satyajit Ray’s Feluda short story “Kailash Chowdhurir Pathar” had that plot and so did a Suchitra Bhattacharya’s Mitin Mashi novel, published a few  years ago in Anandamela (forgot its name, the setting of the novel was the Sundarbans).

Loukik (Real) by Samaresh Majumdar (short story)

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With Samaresh Majumdar being a veteran Bengali writer who mostly wrote about relationships and political activism in his novels, I did not anticipate this short story to be surreal at all when I started reading it. But to my surprise, it turned out to be an extremely well written surreal story of cops visiting a woman’s apartment and never getting out. The passage to the abstract world is present in full form in this short story that lasts only a few pages. Hats off to the writer and Bengali literary culture in general for this hidden gem!

Tarabhora Akasher Niche (Under a starry sky) by Srijato (novel)

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This novel by the famous contemporary Bengali poet Srijato tells the stories of Vincent VanGogh and a schizophrenia patient in modern day Calcutta in parallel. The scrizophrenia patient was introduced to Vincent VanGogh and the famous “Starry Night” painting during his childhood. Since then he pursued painting actively and dreamt of becoming a famous painter one day, but had to give up on his dream owing to a lot of unfortunate and heart breaking events- death of his teacher and mentor from childhood who had actually introduced him to “Starry Night”, an act of plagiarism committed by his best friend and colleague, and of course discouragement from his middle-class family due to the uncertain future associated with pursuing a career in art. The suppressed desire of becoming a painter, coupled with the death of his dearest brother due to a misunderstanding between them, started making him hallucinate. The novel reached its climax when his wife, in order to solidify the distinction between reality and imagination in his mind, brought him to the Museum of Modern Art at New York so that he could see the actual “Starry Night” painting with his own eyes.

This novel probably epitomizes the journey of the human mind through a constant battle between solipsism and empiricism, which is the central theme of my blog. The novel has all the elements necessary to take the readers on that journey- post-impressionist art, a “crazy” painter, the experience of solitude, the nuances of brotherly love and sexual love, mental disorders and of course death. In my opinion, this is a landmark novel in modern Bengali literature and no Bengali reader should miss it. Also it certainly deserves a read by people who don’t know Bengali. I am hoping for an English translation of the book to come out soon.

Sparsha (Touch) by Krishendu Mukhopadhyay (novel)

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This novel by Krishnendu Mukhopadhyay is similar in style to Srijato’s novel “Tarabhora Akasher Niche”. It also narrates two stories in parallel- one story set in the historical past and the other set in modern Calcutta. However the stories are very different in flavor from that in Srijato’s novel, but they are still equally serious and intriguing.

The first story here is of a Bengali pilot fighting for the Royal Air Force during World War II who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. The second story is that of a young lady in modern day Calcutta who interrogates several surviving family members of the pilot to figure out why an old Jewish lady left a huge sum of money for the pilot at the time of her death. The novel is brilliantly written. It is extremely informative and has several touching moments that poignantly bring out the horror of the largest war fought in the history of mankind and the atrocities committed in the Jewish concentration camps.

In my opinion, these two novels perfectly bring out the contrast between two subjects I always found really fascinating- philosophy and history. Philosophy, particularly philosophy of the mind, analyzes events in the mental world of one individual much more than events in the physical world. Since it’s much harder for multiple individuals to agree upon details of events in their own mental world-s than agreeing upon events in the same physical world they all share, philosophy ends up having way more interpretations than facts. Also extraordinary events in the physical world like world wars don’t feature much in philosophy.

Srijato’s novel, which is of extremely philosophical nature and largely dwells on issues connected to the mental world of two individuals- Van Gogh and the scrizophrenia patient in modern day Calcutta- whether the world we live in is real or is an illusion, what is the nature of absolute reality, what is the purpose of existence- talks of very few relatively ordinary events in the lives of some people and yet scrutinizes those events with great precision in order to obtain deep insights regarding the mental world .

On the other hand, history is largely a study of events that happened in this physical world- mostly extraordinary ones which impacted the lives of multitudes of individuals, and hence deals largely with facts. It’s true that history also involves the act of interpretation and hence also deals with events in the mental world that ultimately trigger extraordinary events in the physical world. But still, history, as far as I understand, has way more facts than philosophy and the interpretations used in history are more simplistic than that in philosophy, at least at the level of an individual or relationships among a few individuals. For example, history books don’t deal much with how consciousness flows within an individual, how their thoughts move across in time, etc. and argue about the purpose of existence unlike philosophy books.  Instead the history books kind of assume that people living together in peaceful times are happy and only deal with extraordinary events like wars, famines, tyranny etc. that adversely affect the lives of those people and perturb their happiness.

This novel “Sparsha” also implicitly makes some simplistic interpretations about the meaning of life, on which philosophers have argued for ages. For example, it assumes that the purpose of life is to be happy and make your near and dear ones happy. Hence the Jewish family which was living together in a picturesque European village was indeed a perfectly happy family. Under that assumption the novel is all about how an extraordinary event like the Nazi attack of their village during World War II made their lives more complicated and miserable. On the other hand, in the other novel, Van Gogh, who also lived in Europe in peaceful times surrounded by mostly ordinary events, and the scrizophrenia patient who lived in a peaceful modern day Calcutta, both went through several periods of depression and existential crisis, and eventually killed themselves pondering over issues related to an abstract world that existed in their minds.

I myself have spent a lot of time over the last few years making myriads of interpretations about existential issues and the mental world with not much happening in the physical world, quite similar in spirit to the theme of Srijato’s novel “Tarabhora Akasher Niche”. After reading “Sparsha”, I have also become quite interested in learning more facts connected to extraordinary events in the history of mankind like World War II and then making some interpretations regarding how such a massive event in the physical world was caused by some events happening in the mental world of some extraordinary individuals and how it affected the mental world of the millions of individuals who suffered from it.

 

Okay now let’s stick to my promise of not making this blog too dark and grave, and get back to lighter stuff. Talking about that, the cover page of this year’s Pujabarshiki Anandamela deserves a special mention. I scratched my head for quite some time to figure out why there is an elephant in the picture given that the elephant is not the vahana of any of Durga’s family members. Wonder what staying away from Calcutta for seven years, doing a PhD and indulging too much in the trajectories to the abstract world does to your head!!!

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Movies

Kakababur Obhijaan, directed by Srijit Mukherji

Srijit Mukherji’s movies have apparently become an integral part of Bengali’s Durga Puja celebrations. Every year he makes one movie and releases it the week before Puja. This year he made his second Kakababu movie. It is based on the novel “Paharchuray Atonko”, which I read in a month long high school break between the end of final examination of fifth grade and start of classes of sixth grade. Nothing much happens in the first half of the novel- only Kakababu and Santu sitting in a dome on the top of an extremely tall mountain in the Himalayan range in freezing cold and making observations connected to the giant teeth of a mysterious animal often called the Yeti. Then suddenly in the middle of the novel Santu (or probably Kakababu) falls through a fissure and then the plot takes a sharp turn. The rest of the novel is jam-packed with action. As a kid, I loved that slow build up to that sudden twist and gave the novel several reads as a result.

The same thing is repeated in the movie much to my delight- the first half is pretty uneventful and the second half is jam-packed with action. The movie can be watched just for the sake of Aryan Bhowmik, playing the role of Santu. Equipped with amazingly good looks, martial arts skills (he is extremely comfortable in the fight scenes because he actually knows karate), dance skills (he is also a good dancer in real life but there was no scope to exhibit those skills yet in Srijit’s Kakababu series) and decent acting skills, he is certainly the next Tollywood megastar in the making.

The most memorable part of the movie for me is the theme song. The lines “Dur Digonte Prosno Hajar, Mati te pa tai porlo Rajar” have stayed with me even after I left the theater. Unless you read a lot of Kakababu in childhood you would probably not get why those lines are so special, or why is even there a mention of Raja (king) in a movie with urban middle-class protagonists.

 

Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings · Philosophy

Life as a neural engineering problem: Nov 30, 2016

(This essay was composed at the conclusion of my six and a half years of stay in Berkeley, California, where I was pursuing my doctoral degree. In this essay I tried to write down the guiding principles that can be used to explain the events that happened in my personal life in Berkeley and make inferences about life in general.)

I am trying to describe the world we live in. In order to do that, I first make a very important distinction- distinction between the physical world and the mental world. Of course they are connected but we can still separate the two. What is the basis of the separation?

From an experiential point of view it does not matter to us directly why things happen a certain way in the physical world, but why things happen a certain way in the mental world matters to us. “Us” is very important here because we, humans, are coming up with all these ideas. From an impersonal/ scientific point of view, activity of individual neurons and its collective behavior separates the mental world from physical world.

Relevant questions in the physical world- What is the origin of the universe? What is matter? How does matter behave at different length scales? How do different materials interact with each other? Answers to these questions don’t affect our well being. So we can look for truth with respect to these questions without caring about our happiness.

But answers to questions that involve the mental world affect our happiness. For example, what is the origin of life? Does mind emerge from matter? Is there a higher power? Does that power control our lives? While answering these questions we are biased towards finding answers that make us happy. Human beings are the truth seekers and the truth which is sought after cannot be separated from the happiness of the seeker. All the arguments that I provide here follow from mere acceptance of this fact. We have to accept this fact based on our experience, which is empirical evidence.

If we accept this then truth, with respect to the mental world, largely consists of what we need to know to make us happy. Now because we have to sustain ourselves we don’t want to be happy over a short term- we want long, term happiness. Hence my guess is that the ultimate truth is something the knowledge of what gives us happiness over an infinite stretch of time. This state of eternal happiness is often described as nirvana or mokhsha in ancient Indian scriptures.

Thus I have reduced ultimate truth to what makes us eternally happy. Now let us look at what happiness is. The world “happiness” does not mean anything unless we can clearly associate a mental state, or neural activity inside our brain, with it. This brings us to a little bit of discussion of human anatomy. I will do this at a very functional level.

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The schematic above shows how a single individual interacts with the world around them and what they feel internally. Thus the mental world of others reduces to physical world for that individual because no way they can directly interact with the neural activity inside other person’s head, they can only get clues from the physical world about what goes on in other people’s mental world. The individual interacts with the physical world through their senses which are eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin and genitals. Their mind sends signals to the physical world through the senses and receives the signal from the senses. However, the final thing that the mind receives is simply not just the signal from the physical world coming from the senses. That signal is conditioned by hormones secreted by the body and also conditioned by memories, which are past associations in the brain about previous signals that have come to the mind, and then the mind receives it. This final signal can create two states in the mind, one is happiness and the other is sadness. They are both essentially neural responses to the signal. Now as individuals we want to keep getting the “happiness” signal and not get the “sadness” signal. This paper claims that this is the ultimate truth. Rest of the paper is about how to the neural response called “happiness” can be continuously generated in the mind for time stretched to infinity or in other words how we can be eternally happy.

The easiest way is to keep interacting with the world through our senses in a way that we keep getting the signal that makes us happy. But this method stops acting beyond a point for two reasons:
1. The physical world around us changes. The signal that we are receiving that makes us happy can abruptly end some day. Say, I like a particular kind of food from a restaurant. The restaurant may shut down. (sense involved- tongue). I like physical intimacy with a certain girl (All senses are involved and hormones condition the signals the senses receive). But the girl may choose to get out of my life. Thus in these cases the neural response of happiness decays making us sad, which we don’t want.
2. If a certain signal makes us happy and we are continuously receiving it, it is gradually getting conditioned by the associations formed in our brain (memories) in such a way that eventually the signal stops generating the neural response of happiness. We have all experienced that doing the same act over and over again spoils the fun associated with it at some point.

So what is the solution to this? We have to find ways to be happy with reduced dependence on the senses and finally have zero dependence on the senses. That is the ultimate bliss state. Even if we don’t get all the way, we can get to a state where we are happy over a long period of time if not infinite, and even that is getting closer to the ultimate truth by our definition.

So how to get there? There are broadly three paths laid out in the ancient Indian scriptures. All these paths reduce our dependence on the senses to be happy and hence are effective to take us to the bliss state.

1. Karma Yoga- Karma means work. We need to work to make a living. In addition, if we take our work seriously and are able to contribute to society, seeing other people enjoy the benefits of our own work makes us happy. This happiness depends on more than enjoyment of the senses. The cause of the happiness is contribution of our work to society, which realistically cannot go away as fast as some source of pleasure of the senses can.

2. Bhakti Yoga- Bhakti means devotion, a special kind of love. The word “love” is thrown around everywhere in the English language and thus activities which are physically very different and are done with very different purposes are all termed “love”. \textit{Bhakti} is the kind of love, which makes us less dependent on the senses and takes us to the bliss state.
Usually we love people with the expectation of rewards. The rewards are satisfaction of the senses, sometimes in a direct way like lust in the case of romantic love, or indirect way like financial support also in the case of romantic love or love between parents and children. If the reward keeps coming we love more and we feel more happy, but if the reward stops coming we end up being sad.
But if we can love without caring for the reward then we will be happy perpetually. The concept of divinity in the Bhakti tradition of India comes as an extension of this concept. We love the people around us for various reasons. Once we see the effectiveness of loving without caring for rewards then we can create an image inside our head. We love that image unconditionally. That image is divinity.

3. Gyana Yoga- Gyana means knowledge. Gaining knowledge can make us eternally happy because we learn what our senses are, how we interact with the world through them and how they control our happiness. So extending that knowledge we learn how to not let the senses control our happiness, which is the point of this paper. Hence this paper itself is a lesson in Gyana Yoga.
Meditation is an important part of Gyana Yoga. In meditation we observe our senses, our body processes, our thoughts and we often let our mind generate the neural response of happiness based on very simple elementary signals from the senses, like some hymn, some melody or even the sound “Om”. Thus we are learning to be happy with reduced dependence on the senses. We also learn that thoughts can give us a lot of pain. Thoughts are essentially signals received from the senses or lack of signals received from the senses, conditioned by our mental associations or memories (Schematic 1). In daily existence an individual thinks that they are their thoughts but through meditation one can get to a thoughtless state and see their existence beyond the thoughts, which is often termed the “self”. By doing meditation one can thus learn how to be happy by going beyond the senses and becoming the “self”. By repeating it on a daily basis, one can thus achieve eternal bliss or Mokhsa or Nirvana.

Thus in this essay I have argued that pursuit of eternal happiness largely constitutes truth, as far as the mental world is concerned. Then I have stated methods to achieve eternal happiness and argued why they would be effective. Essentially, this whole practice described here, which may be called spirituality, is engineering our neurons in the body such that the neural response of happiness is generated perpetually irrespective of external circumstances. Since our knowledge of the anatomy and functioning of the body, and particularly the brain, is very limited, we carry out this engineering empirically. Life experiences are the experimental data here. This neural engineering to achieve a perpetual state of happiness is the very essence of life. The method to attain that state will just evolve over time as we experience more and more in life.

(Endnote: Between the time of this composition and the time of uploading it here, my understanding of this subject has evolved a little bit. I feel that my observations here are too much centered around the happiness of an individual, often in exclusion of one’s family and friends. Over the last several months, my preference has slowly shifted towards collective happiness of the society we live in because I have started believing that an individual’s happiness largely depends on keeping everyone around happy, which is the subject of some of my other posts.) 

 

 

Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings · Philosophy

Solitude,collective wisdom, world of thoughts, fear of death, the divine female and many-body interactions: July 7, 2017

(Written after about spending eight months by myself at my new workplace in an altogether new city, where I knew no one when I moved in)

Writing this essay after a solitary dinner at guest house on a Friday evening and a walk back to the house with a minor trip while crossing the road, lights of car coming towards me in the dark, I am standing on the pavement with mind flooded with thoughts, I didn’t cross the road,just standing on the pavement, I would focus on the road before I cross, but what if I forgot to do so and just step in front of the car? Fear of death lol.

This fear of death is most prominent when I am by myself and I am unmindful. The deeper the thought in the head, the stronger is the fear of death on the awareness of the existence of a potential cause of death in the vicinity. The potential cause of death that I can envision can largely be categorized into three types:

i. fear of heights: The staircases in the buildings in IIT barely have any rails and they go all the way up to the 7th floor. You slip off the side and you fall through a few floors- spot dead. Such lack of safety can be barely thought of in the US, but hell, this is India!

ii. fear of cars: I have crossed a main road in Delhi not more than three of four times since I got here. I mostly walk inside campus, where the traffic is much less but I still don’t completely trust these cars.

iii. fear of small objects: The craziest fear, small objects are everywhere, what if I swallow something! I have gotten rid of small objects as much as possible in the house and the office but one cannot avoid them completely altogether, this gives me the most frequent death trips of the three.

Apart from these there are minor fears like fear of dogs, fear of a sharp object like the tip of the pen hitting the eye, fear of knives etc.

But these are the details of the fears, but philosophically what I have learned from the fears is as follows:

i. Solitude definitely intensifies these fears and there is a good reason for it. Most things we do in our lives  One weekend a while ago, it was crazy hot outside, and I spent the entire weekend by myself in the house and then Sunday late at night as I felt very sleepy and I was taking off the ring before going to sleep, I thought why not try swallow the ring and see what happens, and then I stopped myself from doing so and felt so scared. And then finally it dawned upon me- why is being alone scary, even if you have tons of work and hobbies and you thoroughly enjoy them and your are happy being alone it still gets scary. That’s because in our daily life we do a lot of things and do not do a lot of things simply based on collective wisdom. My own consciousness is actually a collective consciousness that I have developed through interaction with society. For example, why don’t I put small objects in my mouth and swallow them? Have I done it before and seen what happens? No, I have learned from others like my parents when I was a kid that it is dangerous thing to do and so I do not do it, and later I have reconciled that knowledge with science. Now if humans start disappearing from my life, that collective wisdom slowly goes away and the chances of doing things that can threaten my life go up and hence death trips go up.

ii. Thoughts have the world of their own, and that world is connected with the physical world we live in. Plato has this theory of forms- all virtues have some kinda real forms in an ideal world, and our present world is a shadow of that or something. Kinda sounds similar to our reciprocal space idea right? Somebody may dismiss this whole thing saying that essentially neurons in this physical world are firing in some weird sequences giving you this kinda impression, but the thing is there is a remarkable amount of consistency in the way my neurons fire, your neurons fire and Plato’s neurons fired which makes me more and more convinced of an actual existence of this world of thoughts. I am trying to get into more math of late, as I am teaching this magnetism course and often tapping into this other world. I guess my physical space is very limited now, this less than one mile of campus is my entire physical world, and my thoughts are running wild all over the place- magnetism, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, neural networks, Socratic dialogues, current affairs published in The Hindu, etc. And my mind is moving freely through all these domains totally becoming what it is looking into, and then suddenly there is an interaction with the physical world where the mind identifies a potential cause of death, and the death strip starts, like tonight, the bright yellow lights of the car in the dark racing down…..

Spent four days and four nights straight with the divine female, beautiful body, amazing form, but it feels so forced and repetitive if I am not fascinated by the mind behind the body.

It just helps with two things : satisfies lust, and reduces the fear of death by eliminating solitude and keeping me connected to the physical world instead of letting me float in the world of thoughts. And with age, these two things will get worse and worse. But is a commitment to spend my entire life with one person worth it only because of these two things? I am not sure.

Last thing, these days I am taking interest in current affairs, cricket and even old black and white Bollywood movies- things I hardly took interest in during grad school. Moving from Bhakti and Gyana Yogas and Philosophy of the Mind to politics, economics, history or even social affairs like bollywood is similar to a high energy physicist moving to the study of condensed matter physics or many body interactions. As far as I understand, the goal of high energy physics is to understand the interactions between particles at the most fundamental level. On the other hand, in condensed matter physics, they assume that particles interact in a particular way without going deeper into why they interact that way and instead try to find out how such interactions lead to new phenomena when the number of particles and hence complexity of the system goes up. Similarly, instead of just exploring more and more about the nature of the individual self through the study of more eastern and western philosophy, I am trying to assume that the self is whatever my current understanding is of it now and then see how the different self-s interact with each other in a complicated system like politics, economics, justice, world of movies, etc. Just like many body physics, beautiful new phenomena emerge here too at different levels of complexity. And also just like condensed matter physics is more useful to the society than high energy physics in terms of practical applications, study of politics or justice or economics is more useful to the society than philosophy of the mind. As a result, I am currently finding the dumb hippies of my Berkeley gang, obsessed with the self, completely obnoxious and the smart hippies of my Berkeley gang, obsessed with the self, borderline obnoxious.

(Endnote: Between the time of writing this essay and the time of uploading it here, the necessity of marriage to avoid all the paranoia connected to solitude has become more and more obvious to me. Also planning to write something soon here on the Socratic dialogues by Plato, maybe emphasizing on Plato’s theory of forms.)

Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings

Notes from Darjeeling: Dec 17-18, 2016

(First composition on return to India after spending 6.5 years in Berkeley, CA)

Hotel room (11 PM, 17th Dec, 2016)

First night all by myself since I left Berkeley. Spent ten days at home in Calcutta. Then took the train to North Bengal by myself while parents stayed over in Calcutta. Been visiting uncles and aunts in North bengal and sleeping at their places so far, got an aunt in Siliguri and one in Jalpaiguri, mom’s sisters, they are my second and third moms basically, met grandparents in uncle’s place,  they are pretty much locked up in a room on the fourth floor of an apartment complex, can’t go anywhere, they sit and watch Bengali serials and cricket on TV and read spiritual books, granddad chants God’s name for an hour everyday with the rudraksh, he had been told that meditation worked in Dwapar Yuga but in Kali Yuga only chanting God’s name works.

Came to Darjeeling today by myself, wanted some solitude up in the mountains, two hours on a window seat of a Tata Sumo from Siliguri, steep ride, Darjeeling, the king of Indian hill stations, quite crowded and touristy, lot of Bengali families, wanted to escape the crowd, do something cooler, feel the temptation to hit the 9 3/4th platform too much these days, so in the afternoon visited a couple of monasteries in Ghoom, eight kilometers from Darjeeling.

The first Ghoom monastery had a huge statue of the Buddha wearing a crown, it was all empty, I had the whole place to myself to meditate lol. Crazy shit happened at the second monastery which made me write this letter pretty much.  As I got out of the first monastery and was walking on the road, I heard chants coming from another monastery, it was near evening, walked into the monastery through a gate, beautiful statue of Buddha, this one without a crown, around thirty people of all ages in monk’s robes, red in colors, sitting with old manuscripts (later figured that’s a Lama script), some playing trumpets, some playing huge percussion instruments, mesmerizing, no one speaks English or Bengali or Hindi or Nepali, a world of its own just a flight of stairs down the main road, sat there for a long time meditating, contemplating, suddenly felt that instead of going solo in my own spiritual quest and telling myself that nothing matters to me I should care more about my parents, my grandparents, my uncles, my cousins, immerse myself in their world, their struggles, try to share their joys and sorrows. I am extremely lucky to receive so much love and there is no need to reject all that in search of some Zen solitude, made a promise to go back to the plains tomorrow and spend more time with them and buy them gifts before I leave for Calcutta in two days (return train already booked).

Turned around and saw that it had gotten dark outside, walked out, the chant was still going on, walked up the stairs towards the gate, a dog and a monk kid started following me, some other dog started barking nearby, realized the big main gate had been locked, they probably thought that there’s no more visitor inside and then realized someone from outside was still there and sent the kid with some keys to open the gate, the kid was struggling to find the right key, the dog came very close to me and started growling mildly, imagine me and a dog and a locked gate with nowhere to go and another dog barking in the background, the kid spoke no language I knew, a few minutes of crazy fear, finally opened the gate, got out, walked an hour in the dark on the mountain road with cars and toy trains and steep slopes without railings to get back to Darjeeling while thinking about the dog incident, no matter how beautiful the monastery was it was their world, an indian or a Bengali or a householder was an outsider there and I got into trouble intruding into their world.

Later went to Mal (Darjeeling’s town center) up the hill, sat in CCD smoking lounge, only place there with unobstructed view of the valley, finally a clear night sky full of stars, first time since Berkeley, the maximum number of stars I counted in India before tonight was around fifteen, that was in Jalpaiguri, spotted only one constellation in Siliguri and Jalpaiguri, in the east, three stars forming a vertical line and one star on each side of it together forming a rhombus, now spotted the same constellation among a million others in Darjeeling’s night sky.

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Started talking to this local guy called Yuvi at the lounge, smoking, drinking coffee,  the servers in CCD were his friends and they were bringing him local brandy in CCD’s coffee cups lol, had a long chat about friendships and relationships and the blurred lines in between, got back to the hotel after dinner, now sitting under a blanket and writing this.

Outdoor cafe at Mal (10 AM, 18th Dec, 2016)

A clear morning, a rare day with bright sunshine in the foggy days of winter,  sitting at a cafe and having coffee and looking down the valley, a couple of hours back I quit the comfort of the blanket and walked outside, very few people at Mal at that hour of the morning, almost no tourists, it’s the cold perhaps, tried to find an unobstructed view of the valley, walked along a road with tall conifers on both sides, came to some kinda observation point with benches painted green, looked up and was amazed by the sight of a gorgeous snow clad peak standing out in the distance with some green peaks of nearby mountains in the foreground, asked a local pointing at the peak, “Yeh Kanchenjungha hai?”, he replied, “Yes” 🙂 🙂 , sat there and meditated for a long time, then took a picture with my smartphone for the sake of this composition.

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The following thought has been coming to me for a while, now after staring at the Buddha last evening and the Kanchenjungha this morning it has taken a more concrete shape, I have definitely found calmness inside, every human being has an access to a void state inside and he is often scared to encounter it, Yuvi said last night that when he is alone he wants to commit suicide, I have become quite comfortable with the void state now but this is addictive, I definitely feel a lethargy to work (do science for example) and just want to sit and contemplate. It feels great but then there are some holes here and there through which the fear of death creeps in- the dog incident last night for example.

(Sounds of “Mehbooba, Mebooba” coming from somewhere down the valley, somebody paragliding up in the sky)

I think the whole idea of spirituality is that one should be led by it naturally without getting addicted to it, that’s where it differs from substances, every step on the path of spirituality should be reversible and that’s why if I lose the ability to pursue a career in science or live a householder’s life like my parents and relatives are doing then it’s not really the path of spirituality or more importantly the path of truth, abilities should be gained and not lost on the right path.

Church close to Mal (1 PM, 18th Dec 2016)

Sunday morning, service going on in Hindi and Nepali, someone playing the violin, someone playing the piano. A few thoughts about Darjeeling- absolutely amazing place, there is a tourist crowd but if you can bypass that, there are entry points into the 9 3/4 th platform on every roadside, ancient Hindu temples, Budhist monasteries, churches and government office buildings from the British era, music all over the place. After visiting the Buddhist monasteries yesterday and a Shiva temple on the top of the hill this morning and observing amazing similarities between their idols, images, decorations, scripts, I realized that Buddhism and Hinduism have kinda merged in the mountains, gotta study on this more once I get back to the plains.

I really don’t feel like leaving Darjeeling so soon, can be here for days by myself, can walk around here for hours and stare at the trees and the buildings and the valley but I made a promise to myself to get back to my relatives by today and spend more time with them before I leave North Bengal, so I gotta take the ride back to Siliguri now, hence goodbye mountains for now, will visit you again soon once I move to Delhi, little hill stations in Himachal Pradesh on weekends, and then Darjeeling again next summer!

(Endnote: Between the time this essay was written and it is being uploaded here, I was able to visit the Himalayas only one more time- 4 days in Shimla end of Jan, 2017. There will be another post on that. Darjeeling has been going through an indefinite shutdown, which has already lasted three months, rendering my chances of visiting the hill station again anytime soon extremely bleak.)